On August 3, one of these individuals will be declared leader of the Liberal Party and, simultaneously, the next Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. Downhome President and Associate Publisher Todd Goodyear recently posed the same 12 questions to candidates John Abbott and Andrew Furey, seeking some insight into their approach to governance and their vision for the future of the province. Here are his questions and their answers. After you’ve finished reading, place your vote for leader and premier in our online poll on the main page of www.downhomelife.com.
1) Why do you want the job as leader and ultimately premier?
JOHN ABBOTT: Like many Newfoundlanders andLabradorians, I have become increasingly concerned about the future of this province. Our population is declining. Our debt levels have exploded. We are taxed to the hilt and the financial future of this province is tenuous at best.
Frankly, I can no longer sit on thesidelines while government refuses to make decisions necessary to move theprovince’s economy and society forward. I know I can make a positive differenceand help us to create the province we are meant to be.
I am totally committed to doing what isbest for this province. I stand out because of my government experience. I’vemanaged very complex, difficult issues, and made difficult decisions. I knowgovernment, government finance and the private sector.
ANDREW FUREY: I’ve been asked this question many times. Why now? My answer is simple. If not now, when? Our province is facing one of the most challenging fiscal situations in almost a century. I believe my experience in healthcare, business and the volunteer sector has positioned me perfectly to deal with the issues facing Newfoundland and Labrador, and I want to do my best to serve the people of our beautiful province.
2) How important is it to have caucus support during this leadership race?
ANDREW FUREY: I’m happy to have the support of people in caucus and support from many party members throughout the province, as working well together is important.
JOHN ABBOTT: My support has come from the people of the province and it has been enormous. We have signed up thousands of people to vote and there is a strong momentum in support of my campaign. Our ads and social media have been very effective in informing people about who I am and what I stand for.
With Premier Ball’s resignation, there is an opportunity for the party to change course and to reassert itself as the best party to govern this province. I am a leader who believes in inclusion. We need the party to govern this province as one, not a few. That’s why I will strengthen the role of caucus in decision-making and fully engage our MHAs in shaping the future governance of the province.
3) One could say that given the financial state of our province, why would anyone want the job? Given that landscape, what are your plans to deal with the enormous debt?
JOHN ABBOTT: We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and expect a better future. That means we have no choice but to reduce the size of government. We can no longer spend more money than we take in. I will prepare a credible financial plan for the province, starting with a Fall 2020 budget.
Mass layoffs now would only make matters worse. Our frontline workers are already stretched to the limit. The unions know what is at stake. We will be working with them. I welcome their help. I’ll be talking to the unions about early retirements. That takes people who are close to retirement anyway out of the workforce that will have a pension income, and protects and offers jobs for younger workers.
Don’t let anyone tell you layoffs are the only way to save money. We have $3 billion in other expenditures. I started inthe Department of Finance 40 years ago. I helped bring down 6 budgets. I know from personal experience, and Standard & Poor’s will back me up, we have some of the most respected financial officials in the country.
We must ask, do we need all the services we are delivering? Are we delivering them the right way? There will be changes but they are long overdue.
We must take charge of our own future. All this won’t be achieved overnight but we will set goals, and rest assured we’ll achieve them.
ANDREW FUREY: One of the first things I will do as Liberal Leader and Premier is call on Ottawa and fully explain the province’s fiscal situation. I see dealing with the economic situation as a three-step process. Short, medium and long-term solutions are needed.
In the short-term, we need immediate help. We need to deal with the fiscal situation to allow us to continue.
We will establish a Chief Economic Recovery Officer and appoint a Premier’s Economic Recovery Team. These people, from diverse backgrounds, would identify solutions and opportunities and make recommendations to the Premier’s office. From there I would act on the best advice and make the decisions that will best serve our province.
4) I guess a follow up to that question is do you feel that the province is bankrupt?
ANDREW FUREY: There’s no doubt that the current fiscal situation is not good, but the province is not bankrupt. There is much to be optimistic about, but we won't be able to move forward without assistance from the federal government.
I am a proud Newfoundlander and Labradorian, but I am also a proud Canadian. We are part of a great federation. Over the last 71 years, this province has contributed greatly to that federation. There are times when we have needed some help, and this is one of those times.
This is not about handouts, but rather recognizing that there will be times when Newfoundland and Labrador, or any province, may need support.
JOHN ABBOTT: We are not bankrupt in the legal sense, but our financial position is grave. Our debt levels are excessivefor a province our size. We can turn it around with proper fiscal management. We achieved it before and we have no choice but to do it again to ensure our future and that of our children and their children.
5) It is largely known that NL does not have a revenue problem, but our spending problem is massive. Politicians are historically criticized, condemned and ultimately not supported when proposing huge cuts. The business community has cut, very deep, due to COVID-19 and the falling oil prices, but not government. Why is that so, in your opinion, and what is your plan when it comes to the size of the civil service?
JOHN ABBOTT: When Clyde Wells became Premier, he also faced significant financial challenges, and I worked on his budgets at that time.
Expenditure and staff reductions were necessary at that time and they are necessary now. What is important is how you make those decisions. As I said, a blanket cut across all departments and mass layoffs is not the way to go. We have to look critically at each department and sector and make the right decisions about where we spend money.
ANDREW FUREY: Now is not the time for cuts. We are just going through one of the most difficult financial periods in our history. Cutting jobs is not the solution.
Across this country and around the world, governments are dealing with the fallout from COVID-19 and cutting jobs to cut spending is not part of my plan.
The pandemic, coupled with the impact of global pressures on oil prices and a harsh winter that was punctuated by Snowmageddon in January, has left many businesses and government in a difficult predicament.
All that said, over time, the size of the civil service will have to come down. The way to achieve that is through attrition and finding inefficiencies.
6) Moody’s recently updated NL’s credit rating, downgrading it from stable to negative largely due to plummeting Brent crude oil prices. What is your plan to counter this, even knowing that oil prices are totally out of your hands and could stay low for a long time?
ANDREW FUREY: There is no doubt that revenue from the oil and gas sector has greatly benefited this province. It’s also obvious that the revenue stream from oil and gas royalties are linked to many global forces beyond any government’s control. We have seen that especially so in recent months.
With this in mind, now more than ever, we must diversify our economy to lessen the impact of volatile swings on commodity prices.
JOHN ABBOTT: What our lenders want to see first and foremost is a credible and realistic financial plan. I intend to deliver that plan with the support of an All-Party Committee. By putting the public interest ahead of politics, we can show the lending agencies that we are being responsible, and I believe this will have a positive impact on our credit rating.
7) The roads in this province, in most areas, are in deplorable condition. We boast a huge tourism sector and spend millions on marketing our beautiful province, yet the tourists must hate to drive around here as do the residents. Every single highways depot in the province is closed on Fridays during the summer, the only time to perform road upkeep and repair. If elected premier, will you change this policy, keep highway staff working during the summer and on Fridays to get the necessary work planned and completed?
JOHN ABBOTT: This is certainly an important issue, not only from a tourism perspective but from a safety perspective. A significant part of my economic recovery plan will be an investment in construction and highway upgrades. I cannot commit that this will happen in Year 1 or 2. That will depend on other priorities and where things stand as we deal with our current financial crisis. We will also be looking for improved performance inour highways maintenance program.
ANDREW FUREY: I’ve driven on the roads and seen the problems firsthand. In my travels around the province I’ve heard people express concerns about road conditions. I know it’s a problem.
The top priority for my administration will be safety. We need to have roads that are safe for our children who are bussed back and forth to school. We need roads that are safe for people going to and from medical appointments. And we need roads that can safely allow the transport of goods to communities so people have access to the things they need.
Because of our weather in Newfoundland and Labrador, the construction season only has a short window to complete repairs and upgrades.
8) A hot topic in the past few years has been political appointments, something that has dogged pretty well every party, every leader in our history. What is your position on political appointments and how do you plan on implementing that position?
ANDREW FUREY: As Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, I will continue to use the Independent Appointments Commission.
Quite frankly, I’m not interested in anyone’s political background. I’m calling on all people in our province, our best and brightest, to step up and work together.
We are facing some big challenges, and we need all hands on deck to help deal with them.
JOHN ABBOTT: I didn’t like it when it happened, and it’s not happening on my watch.
I will be strengthening the appointments process to ensure my government employs a more open and merit-based process in appointments to all agencies, boards and commissions and in government.
9) Should you be elected as leader and premier, how will you govern given you do not currently hold a seat in the HOA? Will you call a bi-election by asking one of the Liberal MHAs to step aside, or should we expect a snap election, something all the parties or province probably cannot afford at this time?
JOHN ABBOTT: I will seek a seat in the House as soon as there’s an opening and I won’t call a snap election. I’ll consult with the leaders of the other two parties.
I’ll do it when it’s in the best interests of the people of the province; they’re going to want to see my budget and my plan before they’re asked to vote.
ANDREW FUREY: My first goal is to win the Liberal Leadership. I’ve already gone on record as saying I won’t call a snap election and that I will run in the first available seat.
I have no intention of asking any sitting MHA to step aside.
10) There have been some serious issues within cabinet - suspensions, removal of cabinet ministers, members crossing the floor, members kicked out of caucus, police investigations, you name it - it’s been less than boring. Do you plan on a major cabinet shuffle and can you assemble a cabinet that will bring credibility to the table to deal with the challenges facing our province?
ANDREW FUREY: At this point I have been focusing my energy on winning the Leadership. If I am successful, there will be a period of transition to the Premier’s office, which will allow me time to consider what a cabinet under my leadership would look like.
For now, we are focused on the task at hand.
JOHN ABBOTT: I believe there are current cabinet ministers and some MHAs who deserve a seat at the cabinet table. I want to see more women in key decision roles. I think the cabinet will certainly look different than it is at present, but it’s a bit premature to say what changes will occur. One thing I will expect from all caucus and cabinet members is to show respect for each other and the rest of the House of Assembly. There will be a harassment-free work environment for sure.
11) Muskrat Falls. There are so many questions that can be asked, but please give your oversight and where you see it operationally in one year and how can the project be paid for?
JOHN ABBOTT: The bottom line is that we cannot pay now, nor will we ever be able to pay for Muskrat Falls. If things proceed as they are, people can expect to pay double or triple what they pay now for power. I cannot let this happen. The current arrangements were negotiated at a different time, and the project’s economics along with the province’s own economic and financial circumstances have changed drastically since then.
The federal government must step up and give the people of this province a guarantee that we will not pay a rate beyond the promised 13.5 cents. That’s my line in the sand. I will not turn on the generators without this guarantee. We just cannot afford to do so, and Ottawa and the lenders know that.
ANDREW FUREY: First and foremost, we must get the project finished as quickly and efficiently as possible. COVID-19 has added another layer of uncertainty to this project. At the time of this interview we still don’t know the amount of added cost that will be associated with Muskrat Falls due to the recent events.
Once we see the final costs, and know exactly when it will be finished, we can properly plan for the future.
12) The Auditor General only fulfilled two years of a 10-year term. During those two years she promised to uncover issues surrounding, in particular, the deal with Canopy Growth. No replacement for this position has been announced. Is filling this position a priority and could Julia Mullaley be back in the running for that position to complete what she started?
ANDREW FUREY: I guess you’ll have to ask Julia Mullaley if she is interested in returning to the position of Auditor General. As for filling the role, it’s definitely an important one, and the House of Assembly Management Commission is responsible for appointing the province’s Auditor General.
JOHN ABBOTT: Yes, it is a priority, but I cannot say who will be in that position at this time. What I can say is that I am committed to “No More Secrets.” I will be strengthening the ATIPP process to make it easier to get government information. I believe the public should have access to any information that is not personal or proprietary.